An Appreciation – The Age of Innocence
Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography places Newland and Ellen’s budding affair in the midst of a quiet storm. The production design surrounds them with imagery reflective of their desires. Like Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947), characters are surrounded by color, reflecting the emotions they are trying so desperately to conceal. When Newland stops by a shop to buy flowers for Ellen, he is encircled by a sea of yellows and reds. Color is also used to signify personality traits. Where May is dressed in muted colors (often virginal whites), Ellen is contrasted with various shades of blues, greens, and burgundies. Even her blonde hair stands out amongst the society’s inner circle. Occasionally the editing (Thelma Schoonmaker) will transition between scenes by fading in bright splashes of color. This approach is used to distinguish what Newland and Ellen wish for but cannot have. She represents the freedom he wants, and he represents the understanding and compassion missing in her life.
Longing and nostalgia play as major running themes. More accurately, a longing for a lost past. Because the narrative establishes Newland and Ellen as childhood friends, we get a sense that both of them would rather go back to that time. Back when things were simpler, where they weren’t so burdened with having to look and act a particular way. The passage of time – combined with The Narrator’s descriptions – makes the story feel like it’s being recounted instead of experienced in real time. And now, the past that Newland and Ellen longed for is replaced by people assigned to specific roles. Theatricality plays a significant presence, and the allegory to the upper class is obvious – everyone is acting.
As Newland and Ellen’s attraction grows, so too does the social constraints holding them back. It’s truly a cutthroat situation to be in, where supposed friends and family will smile to your face but then turn right around and stab you in the back. The second half incorporates a growing sense of paranoia – an unseen but tangible force hellbent on ending the affair before it begins. Scorsese does a masterful job of getting this sentiment across without having to explicitly point it out. During Ellen’s going away dinner (after we learn of her intention to go back to Europe), Newland deduces that everyone seated at the table knows what’s going on and has secretly plotted against them. As the narrator describes, “He was a prisoner in the center of an armed camp.” The climactic moment is when May suddenly appears to him almost out of thin air just when he realizes things are about to fall apart. In context and execution, May’s reveal can be seen as a jump scare.
May is a far more powerful, headstrong, and determined character than is first implied. Throughout, she is played as the docile and subservient wife, always deferring to Newland on matters more complicated than she wants to tackle. But just as Newland is about to call off the whole charade and walk away, May lays a bombshell when she announces that she is pregnant. This is a devasting revelation to Newland, effectively sealing his fate. As a gentleman, Newland would never leave May after conceiving a child. But even more shocking is that May told Ellen about the pregnancy two weeks before it was confirmed by a doctor. May lied to convince Ellen to leave and as a means to keep Newland in her grasp. She is not the simple, submissive wife, but a person who knows exactly what she wants and does what is needed to obtain it. It is at this moment where she becomes the strongest character of the film, because she is able to do what others cannot. When May finally stands up to Newland, the sequence is edited from three different angles, ending with her towering over him – like a masked villain revealing their true identity.
Although the confrontation with Ellen solidified Newland’s path, his story doesn’t end there. A fast forward montage details what appears to be a good life, including him watching his kids grow up to be responsible adults. The Narrator lets us know that Newland was faithful to May leading up to her early passing, which he genuinely mourned. But life – as it always proves to be – is unpredictable, and in the closing section it grants Newland one last opportunity to be with Ellen. Years have passed, and age has caught up with him. He visits Paris and learns that Ellen is aware that he is there. With social conventions now transitioning to a more modern outlook, the idea of the two reuniting is no longer as controversial as it once was. And yet, even when the stars seem to finally align, Newland chooses to walk away.
Why did Newland make this decision? During the entire film he seemed to push in one direction only to go in the opposite way right at the crucial moment. The answer involves a scene that took place earlier before, when a younger Newland approached Ellen on a dock watching a boat sail passed a lighthouse. It is the key shot, a vision that has burned permanently in Newland’s mind. So much time has passed, that Newland’s memory of her has solidified into this one perfect image. In reality, Newland had wished for Ellen to turn around and face him, but it never happens. In his fantasy, she does. He chooses to live with the fantasy, opting to remember the dream that neither of them could reach. That is the genius and the heartbreak of The Age of Innocence. Both Newland and Ellen wanted something that never existed, and any kind of attempt now would only be an act of futility. Sometimes, the greatest love stories are the ones that could never be.